Sunday, February 26, 2012


There is a great satisfaction in revising stories, and finally being able to leave them in a place you're comfortable with. I am almost done revising a batch of stories I've been working on for some time, and already have ideas for another set. But old business needs to be tidied up before starting new business.

In the meantime, I have been spending my leisure time enjoying the short stories of others. I find I am not quite ready to get drawn into a novel, so I go back to old favorites, and re-read collections, realizing how many good stories I'd forgotten about.

My friend Phil recently sent me a copy of "Lovecraft's Library", which is a bibliographic reconstruction of books that were owned by H.P. Lovecraft. S.T. Joshi, the famous Lovecraft scholar who created the compilation, notes the difficulties in creating the list, as his library was disseminated after his death, and the woman who was asked by Lovecraft's aunt to make a bibliography of everything there really didn't understand what she was looking at. In short--among other types of works in the collection, Lovecraft had one of the greatest collections of weird fiction from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hence, this bibliography has done a lot to fill me in on what I've missed. I've probably read every Victorian ghost story anthology on the popular market dozens of times, so this has been helpful in letting me see what I've missed--and hopefully to acquire it.

Among my own collections, I can make a few recommendations of anthologies worth owning, if you like short stories that deal with the weird, the macabre, or the supernatural--or just plain well-written.

1. M.R. James--"Casting the Runes and Other Stories". This is an Oxford University Press paperback edition. There are many collections of James's works out there, and out of all of them, I find this one to hold the cream of the crop. James's specters are usually demonic in nature, or are apparitions that solely exist based on fear. All of them give you a flavor of European and English villages around the turn of the century, as many of his scholarly protagonists make their studies of old churches, crumbling ruins, and archaeological sites.
"The Scrapbook of Canon Alberic", "The Stalls at Barchester Cathedral", and "An Episode of Cathedral History" are favorites of mine, along with "The Malice of Inanimate Objects", which I often refer to on those days when I feel like I'm being attacked by the furniture, appliances, and crockery in my house. All the stories are interesting and worth reading.

2. "Haunted America", selected by Marvin Kaye (Doubleday, 1990). This anthology has a wide variety of spooky stories, many available in other anthologies. However, this is the only anthology where I've seen Manly Wade Wellman's story, "Nobody Ever Goes There", which provides an unexpected creepiness for some reason. The classic Mary Wilkins Freeman story, "The Vacant Lot" is also in this collection, along with stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Washington Irving.

3. "The Haunted Looking Glass", selected by Edward Gorey. (various editions). This is one of my all-time favorites. I first saw this book at an aunt's house, when I was a teenager bored of adult conversation, and wandered into her front library room. As you know I'm a big fan of Edward Gorey's own books and illustrations, so this caught my attention for that right off. It is an exceptional anthology, featuring Algernon Blackwood's, "The Empty House" (one of my favorite Blackwood stories), E. Nesbit's creepy "Man Sized in Marble", as well as classics from Charles Dickens ("The Signalman", the only one of his ghost stories that really keeps my attention), R.L. Stevenson, and Wilkie Collins.

4. Ray Bradbury--"The October Country." I got myself a copy of the original British hardback publication of this, as I prefer the artwork in that edition to that of more contemporary editions. However, regardless of which format you choose, the stories themselves are very creepy, and very original. "The Dwarf", "Skeleton", "The Next in Line", "The Small Assassin", and "The Scythe" are all disturbing favorites of mine.

5. H.P. Lovecraft--"The Best of H.P. Lovecraft--Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre" (Ballantine Books paperback ed., introduced by Robert Bloch). There are many Lovecraft collections out there, but many of them incorporate stories from his imitators. Some of the imitators are reasonably good (Robert Bloch), others not so good (August Derleth), and overall, when I want to read Lovecraft, I want to read the originals. If I want to read the Lovecraft-esque material, I'd rather peruse that separately. Lovecraft does not create a battle between good and evil--his monsters are the blind, indifferent forces of the universe. His successors tend towards the former rather than the latter. In any event--this collection has "Pickman's Model", by far one of Lovecraft's most spine-chilling stories, as well as "The Call of Cthulhu", "The Dreams in the Witch House", "The Shadow Out of Time" and "The Dunwich Horror", along with all his other classics.

6. Washington Irving--"The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent." This is a great collection of American folklore, including the famous "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle," and also includes essays and stories from his travels abroad. There are writings on Westminster Abbey and Stratford-Upon-Avon, as well as observations on English country life in the late 19th century. Another famous Irving ghost story, "The Spectre Bridegroom", is also in this work.

7. Umberto Eco--"Misreadings". (Harcourt Brace, translated 1993). Eco is widely known for his novels and works in semiotics, but it's rare to see a short story collection. I found this one at an antiquarian book fair some years ago. The stories have a sense of humor unique to Eco--if you've read his novels, his literary satire makes perfect sense. Among those in this collection is "Granita", a take on "Lolita" featuring an old woman in a nursing home as the object of affection rather than a 14-year-old girl, "The News from Heaven", which purports to be just that from a disgruntled soul, and "The Phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno", about a wealthy celebrity who is not very smart, and is a "living and triumphant example of the value of mediocrity". A brilliant read.

8. Ambrose Bierce--"The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce." (Citadel Press, 1947). Bierce is one of my favorite American satire authors, next to Mark Twain. (I am more fond of Twain's essays than I am of his fiction--with Bierce, I am fond of both.) This anthology divides Bierce's work into that dealing with his military/Civil war themes ("An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" being one of the most famous), the full text of "The Devil's Dictionary" (Comfort: a state of mind produced by contemplation of a neighbor's uneasiness. Brute: see "Husband"), and his collection of supernatural stories, including "The Damned Thing" (similar to M.R. James's "Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad") and "An Inhabitant of Carcosa."

There are many more good anthologies, but these are the favorites at the moment. Gogo Manley and Sean Lewis have edited many fine Gorey-illustrated anthologies, and Dover, Oxford, and Running Press have produced many more.

Now back to revisions for me...and some more reading...

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Birth Control (A Rant)

Just when I thought the United States right-wing couldn't get any crazier, they once again proved me wrong. Now, with the inexplicable surge in popularity of Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, (just add an "a" and an "i" in there strategically, and he could be a lunatic asylum), there are discussions about abortion, birth control, and a sudden passage of state bills (all unconstitutional) that grant "personhood" to a zygote.

I have avoided this discussion in the past, but really now. As a female American citizen I am under the (apparent) delusion that I am free, and that I can pursue life, liberty, and happiness in my own way. Whereas Rick Santorum and those who have jumped on his bandwagon for the moment, feel I can pursue those things, as long as it follows a religious dogma that says I am nothing more than cattle, and just a container for babies. And naturally, as a woman, this is my only purpose in life.

First, let's identify the mythology here. There is this notion of Woman as Mother--even the esteemed Joseph Campbell talked about the fully developed Woman realizing her personal mystery as Mother. Perhaps that was the case in the past, but for many of us, our "motherly" instincts are reserved for other things--like our cats. Never mind that men have "motherly" instincts too--all humans, regardless of sex, have all archetypes within them.

In any event--Women are supposed to want Marriage and Family and to nurture Children. Again, in previous centuries, this may have made some sense. When populations were dying out, there was a need to create more people. Now, in a world where there are 7 billion people, I'm not sure why these people wouldn't think that Nature/God/Whatever wouldn't put the thoughts into our head, "enough is enough"? Our natural resources are stretched thin. I'm not against people having children who want them, but no woman should be made to feel it is her role and responsibility. In the past, women had lots of kids, because half of them usually died. That's not the case in this day and age.

Politically, the center of this debate has been President Obama saying that part of the National Healthcare Law says that Catholic charities and hospitals must provide birth control. They cried foul, so he reached a compromise--the insurers must provide the birth control, the organization does not have to, and doesn't have to pay for it. A very nice concession, considering that Catholic charities have 62% of their budget from government sources, and all that tax exempt. I'd say the government has the right to dictate how that money is used. In fact--I know ministers (non-Catholic) who provide women's health services and don't accept federal money because of the restrictions they face. And while others might be struggling, I am sure the Roman Catholic Church has plenty of money. Which is why I question why they take money from a secular government they don't agree with on such matters, and why they expect parishioners to pay for the "indiscretions" of pedophiliac priests. But that is a digression.

We live in a secular country, which, as I've noted before, gives preference to NO belief, and inhibits none, inasmuch as it follows the law. Obama's compromise is the ideal secular compromise--it doesn't make organizations do something outside of their religion, while still guaranteeing the rights of an American citizen to those who work for them.

I will tell you something about birth control. It is used for its obvious purpose, but also for other things. Birth control pills are frequently used as a treatment for ovarian cysts--which get to be big and painful, and sometimes debilitating to the point of hospitalization and surgery. Taking birth control can suppress these cysts, because birth control is largely made up of hormones. It can also ease the pain and suffering associated with menstruation--both psychological and physical.

There is the urban legend about the woman who sent a letter to a "Mr. Thatcher", a manager for Proctor and Gamble, when the slogan "Have a Happy Period" appeared on Always feminine hygiene products. Here is a relevant excerpt:

What I mean is, does any part of your tiny middle-manager brain really think happiness — actual smiling, laughing happiness — is possible during a menstrual period? Did anything mentioned above sound the least bit pleasurable? Well, did it, James? FYI, unless you're some kind of sick S&M freak girl, there will never be anything "happy" about a day in which you have to jack yourself up on Motrin and KahlĂșa and lock yourself in your house just so you don't march down to the local Walgreens armed with a hunting rifle and a sketchy plan to end your life in a blaze of glory. For the love of God, pull your head out, man. If you just have to slap a moronic message on a maxi pad, wouldn't it make more sense to say something that's actually pertinent, like "Put Down the Hammer" or "Vehicular Manslaughter Is Wrong"? Or are you just picking on us?

You may laugh at this, but before I started taking birth control pills, this was an accurate description of me at the time of my "monthly cycle". Besides the near-murderous rage you can experience for no good reason at all, there is the pain and suffering that comes from 8 straight days of bleeding, and feeling like you are being stabbed in the gut every 7 minutes or so. It makes the Biblical plagues of Egypt, including the rivers of blood, look like a forecast of "30% chance of showers". Inevitably this would mean a day of work missed each month. (I had a relative with a similar situation in the 1950s--she was in so much pain she had to call out from work. As a result she was fired for being "unreliable".) On the pill--yeah, I'm a little sensitive just beforehand, and I have some pain, but not anywhere near what I have without the pill. And I lose hardly any blood, as those hormones keep me within a moderate and sensible three-days of "menstruation". (Sorry to get so personal, but if you don't like it--blame our idiot Congress, who has the nerve to even raise the personal question.) And I don't miss work on its account.

My point is that a lot of this is about curtailing the rights of women--it really has nothing to do with "protecting" me, or protecting some "thing" that couldn't live on its own, and grows inside my body like a parasite. You may think that sounds harsh, but that's how a pregnant woman who doesn't want children feels about a pregnancy. Pregnancy is hard on a woman's body--and I'm not putting my body through that unless I want it. The government has no business telling me who and who not to sleep with, and under what circumstances. In Santorum's world, if a woman is raped and gets an abortion, she would be treated like a murderer. In fact, Utah had a law (don't know if it passed or was overturned) that suggested that even miscarriage should be investigated as manslaughter. Any of these people ever read "The Handmaid's Tale"? And does it even occur to them that this is where they're going?

Let's get something straight here. All this pro-life BS is just that--these are the same people that would fire a woman who got pregnant if they could get around family leave laws. Even with family leave, the woman doesn't get paid for some of that time--she's just allowed to return to her job. But even besides that--there are not laws in place that protect the child. Lawmakers wanted to deny mandatory health insurance to children, do not support education initiatives--and many of these so called "pro-lifers" support the death penalty and war. (The Catholic Church has a document on the doctrine of "just war".) So, don't tell me it's because you value human life so much. Clearly some lives are more important than others. And clearly you don't care beyond the woman actually giving birth, potentially ruining her health, and the rest of her life. (I'm not talking about the Church as a whole here--I'm talking about the politicians. Some Catholics care very much about all these things, as do people of other faiths or non-faith).

In a secular society, the government has no business whatsoever making laws that turn women into containers for fetuses, and giving fetuses more rights than the mother. And shame on the Catholic bishops for making this an issue--your religion has so much more to offer, and you focus on issues that will render your whole organization anti-human, (even more) hypocritical, and irrelevant.

I will end with Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Saturday Night Live on this issue. It is fitting that comedians comment on something that is such a joke.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Vagina Ideologues
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Contraception Crusade
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Bad Religion, Bad Science

For whatever reason, the “religion vs. science” debate has been the center of attention lately, in social media and in general media. The most recent example was a piece in the Guardian about Richard Dawkins on a radio show, making broad generalizations about how many “Christians” are secular (and therefore in his opinion not “Christian”), and how many couldn’t name the first book of the Bible. The host then said that surely Dawkins could give him the full title of Darwin’s “Origins of the Species”, and after saying “of course”, he couldn’t do it. In the estimation of the writer, this was a stab at the arrogance of Dawkins.

I have always found Dawkins to be arrogant, and his tone makes it hard for me to take his arguments, which may or may not have some legitimacy, very seriously. Still, the Rabbi writing the column mixes up “secularism” and “atheism” in the same way that Dawkins does, ironically enough. One need not be an atheist to be a secularist. Secularism prefers no viewpoint on religion, rather than “no religion”. By preferring no viewpoint, you should (ideally) allow people in society to espouse whatever belief they choose, with special preference for none.

This is all introduction to the point I want to make in this post—“religious” believers of all stripes have more in common with “atheists” and others who might fall into a rational, skeptical, and/or scientific worldview than they realize.

First, like a good scholar and social scientist, I think it’s important to define terminology; the consequences of not doing so can be demonstrated in the article mentioned above. The key definition we need here is for the term “religion”. As any student taking an intro course on the study of religion will know, this is not as easy to do as it first looks. When I am in Britain and tell people that I teach religion, they automatically assume that I am some sort of Christian theologian. My teaching has nothing to do with theology, but that is the first association. Certainly in terms of “atheist” vs. “believer in religion”, there is an assumption that a being is involved, generally described as a deity or “god” (capital and lowercase). Again, not true. There are religions that are, strictly speaking, “atheistic”. They don’t have a belief in a personal “God”. As Joseph Campbell said (and I will quote him often), “God is the ultimate human metaphor.”

No, religion is not (necessarily) about “God”. Atheists do not believe in any god or religious system, and yet by definition (of religion) they do have something in common with the religious, as I will explain.

“Religion” comes from “religere” the Latin word that means “to link back” or “to tie back”. One of the most universal symbols of mankind in some form or another is the circle, or mandala. You see it in all cultures, and it is metaphorical of some kind of unity. If you look at world myths about origins, many of them talk about a unity that is broken. In Genesis, Yahweh separates “the light from the dark”. There is further separation in the myth of Adam and Eve—they are metaphorically one with “God” in the Garden of Eden, then through the woman, they enter a world of suffering and difference (knowledge of “good and evil”). This again is a metaphor for life—we are born through woman (unless you’re a seahorse) into a world where we see difference and separation. “This” is distinct from “that”.

So—“religion” is about getting back to the “unified” state, hence its association with “union with God” and other such metaphors. Alan Watts had a wonderful phrase for it—“dismemberment and rememberment”. This is a very Eastern conception. In the West, the dominant Christian myth says that man is “sinful” and must be “redeemed” through Christ to have union with God (and God and man are of separate substances). In the East, everyone and everything is already “divine”—we have just forgotten, and the job of the guru or spiritual teacher is to “wake you up” and make you remember. Hence—“dismemberment and rememberment”. Obviously there are other religions and variations, but they all point to the notion that we are separate, and need to be One.

What does that mean? If you don’t believe in God in a literal or metaphorical sense, then it has more to do with what it takes to get along with everyone in our global society. The notion is that you view everyone “as a god” (again, metaphorically speaking), and you respect everyone equally. There should not be divisions based on race, nationality, religion, gender, or anything else. These are false divisions, “pseudospeciations” (to use Erikson’s term). So—for the atheist, it is also ultimately about harmony between peoples—they just don’t use religious mythology or metaphor to seek that harmony.

Religion and myth, according to Campbell, have 4 functions—to negotiate the unknown, to provide a cosmology, to provide a social structure, and to provide individual guidance. In a secular world (and not necessarily atheistic), science tends to provide these things rather than what we think of as “religion”. So, I have always seen religion and science as performing the same function—they provide us with tools for negotiating our world, and negotiating the unknown. Causation is not an absolute fact, but we are as reassured by it as the religious believer may be assured that his or her deity is looking after them. We look for “reasons” why things are the way they are. The difference is that science examines the visible world, and religion tackles the unseen world. It is difficult, if not impossible, to use the methods of science to prove anything about an “unseen” world. The closest we get to that is analytical psychology.

One of the big bones of contention for atheists is how many cruel things are done in the world in the name of religion, how many restrictive laws are put into place for something that is a matter of belief, and one not shared by society as a whole. This is certainly true, and you could point to many examples—the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, terrorist acts of Islamic extremists, and that’s just for starters. There are even more mundane laws, like forbidding gay marriage, which has no compelling rationale in a secular society—it is a matter of codified religious dogma.

That said—there is also such a thing as bad science. Western Esoteric scholar Egil Asprem did a great blog posting recently on the subject of bad science. Results can be faked, studies can be biased, even at top universities. Can people be harmed by bad science? Absolutely. A good example is the flap over autism and vaccines. Even after it was proven that the study making that connection was faked—and that Andrew Wakefield had a financial motivation in putting out that study—many parents still steadfastly cling to the notion that vaccines may cause autism, and want to refuse to get their children vaccinated. The result? Diseases that had been wiped out by vaccinations are now making a comeback, and children are dying. All because of bad science.

Now, just because there is a lot of bad science doesn’t make science or its methods “bad” by default. Neither does the existence of “bad” religion make all religion “bad” by default. The thing that bad science and bad religion have in common is the negative side of human behavior. Religious authorities can be controlling and power-hungry (and therefore excessively dogmatic and officious), and so can non-religious authorities. Sometimes the problem is outright sloppiness or laziness, also a human trait that is not limited to one’s worldview. But it is the person or persons involved that are the problem, not the method.

My point is not to demonize religion or science and/or non-religion. Both have their place, and when used rightly, can balance each other out. In the second episode of the Power of Myth, Bill Moyers’s first question to Campbell is, “Why myth (or religion, my parentheses)? Why should I believe in any of it?” And Campbell’s response: “Well, my first inclination is to tell you go on, live your life, it’s a good life, and you don’t need this. You should never believe in anything because you feel you ought to, or it is believed to be a good thing. But I do think that with the proper introduction, you might find it grabs you.”

It might, or might not. The bottom line is that as human beings, the best parts of us are looking to live together harmoniously, to have mutual respect, and for everyone to have equal opportunity to fulfill their own potential—to be free and happy. We all are interesting in knowing, and in minimizing anxiety of the unknown, and our means of doing that will depend on our experiences. It doesn’t matter what worldview you espouse. Your preferred point of view will depend on your experience, and no one likes their personal worldview structure to be violated, no matter how well intended, hence the intensity of feeling on both sides. There will always be a tension and struggle between opposing viewpoints, and humans often behave in ways that are less than humane. But the ideal goal is still worth striving for in spite of the mythology you choose or don’t choose. And in the final analysis, for everything we know, there are a million things we don’t know or understand, and maybe never will. Whether you prefer a purely rational/material worldview or one that involves some type of “religious” view, the best thing is always an open mind.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Possibility and Outcome

I read somewhere recently, probably in a tweet, that "those people who think anything is possible are delusional." I found the remark to be quite offensive, but after giving it some thought, decided that it once again is a matter of balancing extreme views. (That also tends to be the remark of someone whose dreams have ended up in failure, and therefore turn a cynical eye towards anyone who wants to pursue their own. A normal reaction perhaps, but overblown.)

As children, if we haven't been beaten down by the extremes of modern psychology and education, we have vivid imaginations. Imagination is one of those things that is marginally acceptable as a child, but not acceptable as an adult. We equate imagination with irrationality, and when we grow up we are expected to have full functioning frontal lobes and be practical, reasonable, and logical. Yet, without imagination, we don't make progress as a society, technologically or scientifically. Great discoveries can be made through dreams, or just metaphorical associations. As I've said before--rationality is terribly important in making good decisions. However, we tend to give it so much importance that we don't trust ourselves and our own instincts.

When it comes to possibilities, we limit ourselves to what we can do based on current information, and current practical factors. It is true that not all possibilities are open to us, but if we aren't open-minded, we may miss opportunities to get the very thing that we want. You may be "safe" by not taking those chances, but you'll never live your own life. It will undoubtedly be the life someone else decides you should have.

There is always a balance factor. As we grow up, the importance of things like college is stressed, so that you can get a good job. When I was young, my mother wanted me to go to secretarial school, and of course the assumption was that I'd get married and have children. Yes, my mother grew up in the 1940s and had that kind of mentality, but not entirely--she also stressed that one should have their own education and not be reliant on a spouse for their material needs. She had seen too much of that go wrong in her own family. Today, you hear a lot about "getting your money's worth", or ROI, for your college education. Given the kinds of jobs that are out there today--I have to wonder, how many people go to college and are happy sitting in a cubicle working 9 to 5 every day? Even if you make a lot of money (and most don't), I find it hard to believe that this is what people dream about, or aspire to be.

This is not to say that these jobs can't provide a measure of satisfaction, but often, one's satisfaction comes outside of work. You hear a lot about people waiting for the day when they can be "free of their job" and do what they want. But I find that most people really don't know what they want. Material wants only go so far, and other types of satisfaction on a deeper level may not even be a thought. I was talking with a co-worker the other day, who said she didn't care about any meaning in anything, she just wanted to be sure she was providing the best for her children. "Yes," I said, "but don't you also want a career that makes you feel fulfilled, and not just a job? Isn't that why you're getting an education?" She agreed that this was true. "So," I said to her, "your aspirations may not be what you consider 'deep', but they are about feeling fulfilled on more than just a superficial level. They don't have to be grandiose." Often, I find those bigger "dreams" involve making a difference in someone else's life.

Everyone has different needs and wants, and not everyone needs the same thing to reach their dreams. But recently, I have discovered something that I've read about and probably talked about many times, but never really understood until recently. Like the numinous experience of "everything is", it can't be understood at all until it's experienced. And that experience is the one of not caring about outcomes.

Since I've made some of the decisions mentioned in earlier blog posts this year, I've found that I am free of the desire to know how things are going to turn out. That was always a factor in decisions--I'd use both logic and intuition to try to figure out where I was going to end up. Now I no longer care where I end up. There is nothing depressing or despairing about this--it's just going from day to day, seeing what opportunities present themselves, and listening to my intuition to decide what to act on and what to avoid. It is remarkably liberating, and I've found a number of unexpected opportunities that have sprung from not being over-planned, or worried so much about the "why", or how this will help me "down the road." Some things work out, and some don't. There's no reason, and there doesn't have to be one.

A friend of mine recalled to me the Joseph Campbell "Power of Myth" series with Bill Moyers, and I decided to re-watch a couple of episodes. In one of them, Bill Moyers talks about the purpose of life. Campbell says there is no purpose--what we are looking for is an experience of being "alive". I would fully agree with that, and I would suggest that one gets there not by planning and trying, but by letting it happen, trusting that you will do the right thing, even if it seems "impractical".

Jung talks about the perfection of the psyche, and one of its attributes is that everything has an opposite. Heaven is within you, and so is Hell. Perfection requires both sides. Letting go and not striving so much for one or the other can actually lead you to a balance without even trying. A negative experience or sorrow does not have to mean I have to strive harder to be "good", or that I'm being "punished" (as we often unconsciously think in the West). It's just an experience like any other.

Back to my original thought--it is not "delusion" to believe that anything is possible, even knowing that not all opportunities are available. But the likelihood that you will end up in the best possible place for you is enhanced if you are open to all possibilities, and not attached to the outcome of any of them.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Sigmund Freud and the Scratching Post

I woke up sometime in the night, maybe around midnight. The moon was full, and from the skylights there were two pillars of white light in my bedroom. The right pillar lit up a pair of slippers that my nephew gave me for Christmas. Each slipper has the head of Sigmund Freud on it, and collectively they are known as "Freudian Slippers". The left pillar lit up one of Shiva's scratching posts, strategically placed to keep him from scratching the bed, but hardly ever used. It crossed my mind that this was a scratching post with a mission--it was going to replace the large blue "tower" post that he has in my living room. I had saved the blue tower from my neighbor's garbage when I lived in Clinton--at the time, there really wasn't anything wrong with it, other than it being unattractive. Now it has been torn to shreds, and is an eyesore in the living room. Come Spring clean-up, it will go into the garbage where it now rightfully belongs, and this one will go downstairs to get some use.

Contemplating this scene and my thoughts, I looked at the layout of the room and decided that there must be something to this layout, as though the objects were strategically placed to collect moonlight, as Stonehenge is strategically laid out for the solstice. Then I decided I was full of crap, and that it was a bad idea to read Robert Anton Wilson before going to bed. Not that Wilson really has anything to do with it--he would have thought I was full of crap, too.

I always read before going to sleep. Regardless of what writing, reading, or research I've done during the day, I never read anything that makes me think too much before bedtime. While I might read Umberto Eco during the day, my nightstand will usually have a collection of Dave Barry articles, or a book of Peanuts comics. I broke with that tradition last night, and brought "Cosmic Trigger 2" to the nightstand. The book looks like a deceptively simple and straightforward read. And it is, which is what makes it so mind-blowing. Part 2 is actually the "reality" section of the book, where Wilson talks about his life. It still manages to be mind-blowing. Not that this is a bad thing, unless you want to get some sleep.

One of the things Wilson talks about, and that I've read about before, is "information doubling". I don't think he invented that idea, but he discusses it in a way that is different from what I've read before. As more and more new information pours into our civilization, the more quickly we have to "re-frame"--change our frame of reference. He talks about information doubling between the 1950s and 1960s, and imagines that information may double every nanosecond by the year 2012. (I wouldn't doubt he's right.) He notes that this leads to social breakdowns, sometimes revolutions. He's not pessimistic, though--he believes a lot of good can come out of the ensuing chaos.

Wilson also talks about "reality tunnels”, which has everything to do with our frames of reference. He mentions the "respectability" of ideas, and how a Caucasian culture of fixed ideas makes it difficult for us to re-frame. When we learn to accept that there are many "realities", not just one, we can stop fighting over who has the "right" reality. (Carlos Castaneda was getting at the same idea in his books.) To sum up in Wilson's own words:

Learning a new art or science requires what psychologists call "reframing". Abandoning a fallacious dogma and accepting new facts requires "reframing". The cure of any neuroses or compulsion requires "reframing". To grow means to reframe, or to change reality tunnels. But we cannot do this if we have a conditioned attachment to conditioned perceptions and conditioned frames or glosses. We all want "liberation" but we rarely notice how conditioned reflexes make us our own jailers.

In our modern information explosion, reframing is even more difficult than ever. The rise in religious fundamentalism and scientism is not surprising, as people are desperately clinging to some illusory rock to avoid drowning, whether they think their scripture will save us or hardcore materialism. But one can only avoid drowning by not getting caught in the undertow. Which is why I think meditation is so important. The purpose of meditation is to bring you back to your own center, where it is quiet, and you can hear your own inner guidance.

I read another piece from Jung's commentary on the Secret of the Golden Flower, where he strongly advises against Westerners getting involved in what he calls "Chinese yoga". I have written in previous blog posts about the dangers of jumping into certain forms of yoga without a proper teacher. Joseph Campbell has made similar remarks to Jung--we are Westerners, we do not have the frame of reference of the Easterner. However, neither Jung nor Campbell lived in a society as globalized as it is today. Campbell was certainly around for television and the first computers, but never experienced anything like the Internet. Marshall Mcluhan has noted that television turned us into a global community--we were no longer so isolated from everyone else. The Internet has removed many more barriers, though it has also created some new ones--while we can talk to someone on the other side of the world, we have stopped communicating with those closest to us--they send us a "text" or comment on our Facebook status, and no longer speak to us on the phone or face-to-face. It is an interesting situation, and I wonder what Jung and Campbell would have made of it.

At any rate--Campbell has also commented in his lectures about the functions of mythology. The problem is that the cosmology of Western religion does not square with modern discoveries. Most mainstream churches have accepted that their cosmology is a mythical allegory and have accepted the new one. But many more have not, as evidenced by the push to teach creationism in schools. The Eastern cosmology fits in quite nicely with the modern worldview, and hence it is more suited to this global world. People who do not wish to abandon spirituality entirely, and yet can’t find meaning in the Western traditional ideas are often interested in that “third alternative” of the Eastern world view. Their practices may not be entirely Eastern, but they become something else that doesn’t have to be an empty cant of ego aggrandizement. In short, the firm lines between East and West are blurrier in a globalized culture, and that doesn’t have to be bad.

Friday, February 03, 2012


I’ve written before about noticing patterns in life. While causality is not an absolute fact, observing your own patterns can be helpful. I have made a lot of big decisions this month, and also taken some risks. Regardless of what it’s about—love, money, anything else—I notice a repeated reaction to situations. If it’s a situation I’m very attached to, I’m also very interested in controlling the outcome. I have to have a plan, I have to know how it’s going to work out, and I need to know RIGHT NOW. If any kind of crisis arises, or any need to look at the future, I speculate wildly in both directions—positive and negative. And I end up feeling drained and frustrated, because I don’t “know” the answer.

The fundamental lesson here for me (and maybe for you, if you’re like this) is one of trust. I think about what Alan Watts said about growing up in society:

“Instead of being quite direct with our children, we say ‘You are here on probation, and you must understand that. Maybe when you grow up a bit you will be acceptable, but until then you should be seen and not heard. You are a mess and you have to be educated and schooled until you are human.’ These attitudes which are inculcated into us from infancy go on into old age, because the way you start out is liable to be the way you finish.” (The Tao of Philosophy, 13)

In short, there is the attitude that we cannot trust ourselves, we have to be educated and let our education system tell us how best to second-guess ourselves. I’m not suggesting that education isn’t important; heck, I sometimes think I can’t get enough of it. But we put too much emphasis on logic, facts, figures, statistics, and never actually trust our feelings. There are situations when we should rely on those things, and they are important. But the power of our instinct shouldn’t be discounted. There needs to be a balance.

Tied to the lack of trust in ourselves is the need for perfection. If we make a mistake, we beat ourselves up for it. We don’t want to take risks because we “might make a mistake”. As Jung once said, “the soul demands your folly, not your wisdom.” If you don't make mistakes you aren't living. Only machines don't make make mistakes. (Well, some do, but that usually involves a human error somewhere along the line.)

So, I am trying to learn to deal with the “flow”. The expression “go with the flow” is quite clichĂ©d, but it’s very simple advice that we often don’t take. It involves being in the moment and not worrying about how it will come out. It means not getting annoyed when plans don’t work out. And, it means not getting upset if you’re momentary decisions don’t turn out to be the right ones. In a world that stresses “minimizing risks”, this is likely seen as immature or irresponsible. But I find that if I learn to listen to myself, I don’t make the wrong decision, even if it seems like a crazy thing to do at the time.

Life is rarely a smooth ride, and things are more likely to happen through unexpected encounters, conversations, and opportunities. And because they are unexpected, you can’t plan for them. If you worry about the unexpected rather than embracing it, you spend your whole life not living your life, because of “what might happen tomorrow.”

So, in spite of some questionable circumstances, I have gone along with my feelings and decided to be celebratory rather than living under the mantle of austerity. I’ve planned a trip to New Orleans, just because. The idea came into my head for no reason, and it felt like the right thing to do, so I did it. Similarly, I have changed my course a lot lately, planning to do one thing, but changing direction at the last minute to head down a different road instead (sometimes literally). I know I’ve made the right decisions, because they feel like right decisions. I always think, wow, if I trusted myself and trusted in the process of life, I'd make right decisions all the time.

I have a good friend who was recently having some difficulties (now sorted out, thankfully). I remember her saying to me, “You know, I should be worried right now, but I’m not. I just feel like it will all work out, even if I don’t know how.” By contrast, I was tearing my hair out about my “plans”. Joseph Campbell once said that if your life is going according to plan, it’s probably someone else’s life. Life is what happens when you drop your plans.

I still have my long-term interests and goals. But how I get there is not so important now. What matters is what is right, right now. I can’t say precisely how I feel about a lot of things, and that is how it should be, as far as I’m concerned. I wake up chock full of thoughts in my head, and as I drive to work and watch the sun rise, I realize how nice it is to be doing that on a beautiful country road. I do not worry about traffic, I don’t worry about exactly what time I will get to work. I forget about time. In the end, I get there just when I'm supposed to.

I enjoy the flow, and hope that I don’t sabotage my sense of going with it.